Schools implement new game art major and minor

Twenty freshmen are currently enrolled in the major alongside a dozen upperclassmen who joined as internal transfers. (Beth Mosch | Daily Trojan file photo)

USC announced the new Bachelor of Fine Arts in game art in the School of Cinematic Arts and the technical game art minor in the Viterbi School of Engineering for the 2022-23 school year.

The game art major requires 52 units of cross-disciplinary courses that involve using visual expression and technical animation with a collaborative cohort. Required courses cover topics ranging from 3D and character modeling to workshops on game design and digital media. Students must also enroll in the advanced games project course to fulfill a year-long capstone project that involves working with a 10-person team to pitch and create a game.

Within the major, students can declare a concentration in character animation, environmental design, visual effects, 3D pipelines or interactive animation.

Professors from SCA and Viterbi joined forces to develop and finalize the game art curriculum in Fall 2020. The schools allowed students to enter the major as internal transfers beginning in Spring 2021.

“The three pillars are often thought of as design, code and art,” said School of Cinematic Arts Academic Program Manager Sam Roberts. “We were teaching at an excellent level the first two and we didn’t have a degree program for the third … We made the decision because there’s a lot of parts of making art for games [and] animators are potentially one of the most needed.”

Students enrolled in the majors in SCA’s Interactive Media & Games Division share a large number of classes during their freshman year, which helps to replicate the collaborative nature of game development in the industry. Roberts said that game development jobs function “between spaces,” making it integral that students have an introductory education across several disciplines within gaming.

Twenty freshmen are currently enrolled in the major alongside a dozen upperclassmen that joined as internal transfers. Roberts said he seeks to expand the class size and add more electives and specialties once the major increases in demand. As of now, the professors have devised a number of classes within the animation department specific to real-time animation used in game art.

“There’s a limited number of programs [elsewhere] that teach animation and digital assets from an explicitly real-time interactive point of view,” Roberts said. “Students who’ve gone through our program come out having worked in these pipelines, with running games in their portfolio, where they made digital assets in the fashion that the games industry requires.”

The professors simultaneously worked to redesign pre-existing courses to better fit the game art narrative. One of these courses — ITP 215: Introduction to 3D Modeling, Animation, and Visual Effects — teaches students the technical underpinnings and pipelines that go into games.

Viterbi engineering and computer science games professor Scott Easley modified the course to focus on a hands-on approach to teach students basic Maya, a 3D modeling, texturing, rendering and rigging software that has a stronghold in the game industry.

“Everything students work on from day one contributes to their final,” he said. “They build an object, they learned modeling, we’re in the throes of building a car, we then texture the car to look realistic. We then make the wheels move. We then put it on the desk. Everyone makes a prop in their dorm, and then we all code that from that big mound of information and everyone makes a little table full of objects. The final is to film that car winding its way through the objects according to a storyboard.” 

Willem Lent, a freshman majoring in game art, chose USC because of its unique game art program and was impressed with the faculty’s role as both professors and developers working in the gaming industry. He said ITP 215 is his favorite class this semester.

“Professor Easley is very personable,” he said. “He’s very understanding. He’s very fun. The class is very productive, but it doesn’t really feel like I’m just sitting in there and taking notes or learning, it’s very hands-on. I have no prior experience with 3D modeling before, but I’ve already come so far with the software in the few weeks that we’ve been working.”

ITP 215 fulfills the requirements for both the game art major and technical game art minor. Easley, along with faculty in SCA and Viterbi who have worked to implement these new degree pathways, aspires to help existing artists adapt to the world of 3D modeling.   

“My hope is that [my class] gives them a taste of taking their existing skill set and having them comfortably go into the world of 3D with it,” Easley said. “If I can bring those walls down and say, ‘it’s actually no less complex than things you’ve already mastered,’ then a whole new generation of digital artists can become 3D modelers, can become environment modelers, can do whatever they want.”